Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4 (in October)
In ECHO you play as En, a young woman in the far future. You have travelled to a sci-fi palace, which may contain the secret to resurrecting your dead friend, Foster. Your only companion on this journey is your ship’s cranky, disembodied British AI named London. The palace is controlled by an artificial intelligence that has created hundreds of clones of En, each one trying to kill her.
The game’s core mechanics function on an almost day/night cycle. When the palace lights are up, the palace’s computer records your every movement. When the lights go down, the computer stops recording your actions for about a minute. After that, the palace resets and the lights come up, and the clones will now use all the tactics you used against them during the previous day cycle.
If you opened doors, so can they. If you leapt off of ledges to lower platforms, the clones will too. If you shot them, they will shoot you. When the palace power cycles again, the clones will adapt to your latest set of strategies. Initially, this creates a thrilling rhythm where you hold back on speed and aggression until the “night” sequence, and then you rush through certain areas and shoot your gun with abandon, because the clones aren’t “learning” your moves at this time. This feels great for the first few hours. Unfortunately, many small design flaws pile up into one big problem: detection never feels particularly dangerous.
Your enemies have short vision cones that are fairly easy to avoid. Even if you are detected, sprinting around a few corners will cause them to lose interest and start wandering again, as if they never saw you in the first place. Your stamina meter, which limits your sprinting time, rebuilds even while you’re jogging. So if you don’t use your gun, they won’t use theirs, and you can jog casually away from most enemies, wait for your stamina meter to refill, and then sprint away without any consequence.
If you do use your gun, you can usually outdraw and outshoot single enemies. If you’re out numbered, once you get far enough away the clones don’t shoot at you at all, or at least do so with very limited accuracy.
If a single enemy detects you, you can just shove them onto their back and run away. This makes you feel less like a cyberpunk in a bizarre neo-Versailles and more like a glorified British boarding school bully flipping turtles. Sometimes, instead of shoving, you’ll kick your enemy over, which caused me to start yelling “SPARTA!” and giggling. I’m guessing that wasn’t the designers’ intention.
Perhaps worst of all, the enemies are all the same. You never encounter an En clone that can do everything you can do PLUS she has a sniper rifle. Perhaps a slow En who tracks you relentlessly by scent. I understand that this goes against the game’s central design philosophy, but it desperately needs some variation. This might have been forgivable if your character advanced, giving you more options to deal with the copycat threats. Sadly your entire ability set becomes available in the first hour of the game and never really changes. Your approach to level 2 is almost identical to your approach to level 7: sneak around a bit, kill people from behind, jog a lot, grab the McGuffin, maybe shoot some clones, and bail. After doing every single mission type twice, I was really bored.
Bold Level Design Mired by Uninspired Goals
Despite being non-linear, the levels alternate between three simple goals: run through a gauntlet of enemies and obstacles to the end point, collect keys to open a final door, or touch a fixed number of blue lights to open the level exit. I enjoyed the first two objectives, but the “blue lights” levels were sprawling and tremendously repetitive. Instead of breaking up the tedium, they added to it.
This problem is exacerbated by a weak checkpoint system. In the second “touch all the blue lights” level, you have to hit 24 lights scattered over multiple floors. There are a few mid-level save points, but to activate them, you need to find and walk through in-game gates. If you die, you are resurrected at the gate, losing any progress made since the last time you saved. I hope you’re ready to sprint through the same level, touching all the blue lights again. I was really hoping I was done with this level style, and then the game put me in an even bigger level where, this time, I had to touch 30 lights. When the door to the level opened, I actually shouted, “THIS AGAIN?!”
Even worse, the game has no mini-map. There’s no indication of where these gates are and there’s no easy way to return to them unless you have a strong sense of direction. This makes collectibles particularly hard to grab. If I get lucky and find a collectible hidden in one of the massive levels, grab it, and die before I hit a save point, I have to find it all over again. This is particularly annoying when there are a few collectibles at the beginning of levels. Every time you restart you need to grab them again. In 2017 this is an inexcusable design flaw. An optional collectible should stay collected, even after death.
While the levels look beautiful and are designed well, they are assembled from a limited number of visual assets. This dulls the game’s shine significantly despite how glossy and beautiful those assets might be.
I could have forgiven much of this if the story was told well, but it’s unevenly paced and almost completely divorced from the gameplay. Very little plot exposition is delivered during the stealth missions. Instead they’re relegated to En / London chit chat during long walking sequences in between palace areas. Adding insult to injury, En is forced to walk rather than jog while she’s talking, drawing out already over-long sequences.
The best games unify their story and their mechanics; ECHO separates its story and its mechanics with “a wrought-iron fence made of tigers.” There is an enormous missed thematic/narrative opportunity in the primary “fighting yourself” mechanic. What if the game was about En undergoing an experimental psychiatric treatment gone wrong where she has to fight her personal demons in the form of mental clones? She is literally battling against her own mind. Instead of a cranky AI, she could be talking to a therapist who is trying to help her escape this illusory mental palace before time runs out. Each time she picks up a key or touches enough blue lights, she would recover a lost memory, or resolve some traumatic issue, giving you a narrative reason to complete mission objectives.
Or if we wanted to keep the game’s original premise and world, we could explore sentience in clones and AI, and how that might affect our moral choices when it comes to violence. The game could explore how committing violence against others is, in a way, committing violence against yourself. No matter how justified, there are always consequences for acting violently. What if some of the En clones decided to stop hunting the original En and talked to her instead? How might En react? En believes that Foster is digitized and kept inside the cube on her back, waiting to be resurrected. What would he think of an En who enacts such great violence to save his life? Would he even recognize her? London talks a lot about how En’s cult leader grandfather saw people as disposable - how is En’s mass slaughter of clones any different? The game touches on some of these themes, but never questions En’s violent actions in any substantial way. Exactly how many clones deserve to die so that your already-dead friend can live again? There are so many ways the gameplay could’ve been integrated with the narrative and themes, but ECHO never even makes the attempt.
It's Not All Bad News
Despite these flaws, a few elements of ECHO stand out. The voice acting is stellar. En and London go twenty rounds about many things, mostly faith and the game’s society, particularly the Resourceful cult that En’s family belonged to. Echo makes the very cyberpunk choice of dropping you into the story in medias res, forcing you to assemble a picture of the world from context clues and small details in En and London’s conversations. As a fan of the genre, I enjoyed this and wish it was more thoughtfully integrated into the game’s action.
ECHO's stylish science-fiction-meets-Renaissance aesthetic stands alone amongst the legions of all-too-familiar space opera, military sci-fi, and cyberpunk games. Destiny doesn’t look all that different from Mass Effect, which doesn’t look all that different from Deus Ex. Only ECHO looks like ECHO. En has a great character design that, in a better game, would’ve inspired legions of cosplayers.
I may not have noticed ECHO’s flaws if the game had simply been shorter. Having players experience each mission type once, mix in some neat puzzle sequences, keep it under four hours, and I wouldn’t have had time to grow bored. At one point in the game, the clones stopped attacking me and I finally had the freedom to explore. Instead of going full head-squeezy-murderess, now-docile clones walked up to me and cocked their heads like confused puppies. It was a refreshing change of pace, and it lasted less than twenty minutes. Then it was back to your regularly scheduled, low-stakes stealth game. It was like ECHO was afraid I would get bored with the narrative if I had to do something other than race around touching blue lights.
This review talks a great deal about what’s wrong with ECHO, but please make no mistake: I point out these flaws because I want indie games like this to be better, to attract the large audience that Ultra Ultra’s ambitions and originality deserve. I’d rather games go hard and fail big than go the boring safe route any day of the week.